A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Knight’

After the long years devoted to the final two parts of the Solar Cycle, Gene Wolfe entered the Twenty-First Century with a two-part epic fantasy, inspired by the fabulist Lord Dunsany, set in a world of seven levels, built from mythology. The first of these was The Knight.
I have never read this book as an individual volume, but only as part of the 900 page plus collected volume, published as The Wizard Knight, from which it will be clear what name the sequel bears. Perhaps because of the sheer heft of the collected volume, which matches the single-volume omnibus of the Book of the New Sun, Severian of the Guild, for thickness, I have always found the book a daunting prospect, and have never taken to it.
The Knight takes the form of a long letter – a very long letter indeed – written by a young American boy whose name we don’t learn in this volume, to his older brother, Ben. The letter, which is written an unspecified number of years later, is an account of the younger brother’s adventures after disappearing during a hike from their cabin. Along the way, we learn a few passing details of the boy’s life in America: that the pair have lost their parents, their father when the boy was practically too young to remember him, the mother when he was still at school, that there is some friction between the pair, seeming to be based in Ben having to take responsibility for his younger brother, and that the boy spends a lot of time at the cabin to keep out of the way.
But the boy is of course a classic Wolfean unreliable narrator, in this case because of his youth, his naievete and his inexperience. The boy, as the title indicates, finds himself in a classic Dunsanian environmental, in a medieval age of peasants and merchant but, most importantly from his perspective, Kings and Dukes, feudal Lords and Courts and Knights.
The boy is determined to be a Knight, and takes the name of Sir Able, fully Sir Able of the High Heart, which is the only name by which we know him in this first part.
The story is episodic and rambling, which is another reason I have difficulty with it. Though I have tried to read Dunsany, many many years ago, his fantasy fiction belongs to an older age. It is a higher fantasy that I don’t respond to, a fantasy born of connections to our everyday Earth that never have (or in those days needed) explanations. So Sir Able leaves the cabin for a hike and somehow ends up in Mythgarthyr, the middle of the seven worlds and the closest equivalent to this Earth, between the Fire realm below of Aelfrice, and the Air realm above, of Skai.
What then follows seems to obey no narrative purpose except to move Able onwards through a series of situations as he pursues his goal. Where he goes, and how he moves from place to place never feels like a progression, just a collection of things that happen.
The first of these is almost a static situation, as the young Able – still a stripling physically, fitting his actual age – is more or less adopted by a former warrior, Bold Berthold, whose brain has been scattered by a severe head injury. Berthold believes able to be his real brother, presumably dead, and helps him survive in the forest.
But then Able is taken into Aelfrice, by the Mossmaiden, Disiri of the Aelf, with whom he falls in love. Disiri beds him, but in a physical parody of the notion that losing ones virginity turns you from a boy into a man, Able wakes up a big, strong, strapping man, physically tall, strong, limber, phemonenally accurate with the bow. So much so that Able henceforth is superhuman. He’s still an American teenager, and there are times when he demonstrates that his brain hasn’t developed along with his body, because he frequently talks like an American kid – a noble Knight who ends half his sentences with the word ‘Sure’ is both a deliberate incongruity and and unintentional pain in the arse after a while – and his physical ability to push people round leads to his throwing his weight around and threatening to push people around.
Able certainly sees this as defending his honour and status as a Knight, in those moments when he’s not being utterly modest about himself, but he comes over as not much more than a bully in several of these instances. And whilst he can be decently modest, especially when comparing himself to the achievements of more conventional Knights, it’s noticeable how many times he reports to Ben how people, especially his betters, praise him in terms that you might think we’re overblown.
Along the way, Able collects an itinerant bunch of followers, who continually appear and disappear. In no particular order, these include his servant, peasant’s son, Toug, his other servant, the one-eyed sailor, Pouk, his half-crippled peasant servant Uns, his two Aelf servants and handmaidens, Uri and Baki, his Dog, if Dog he really be, Gylf, who can talk, and his cat, Mani, who can also talk. Uri and Baki are constantly trying to get Able to have sex with them, though he is dedicated to Disiri, who he expects never to see again, and Duke Beel’s daughter, the Lady Idnn shows a disturbing enthusiasm for throwing herself at (or under, if he’s not careful) him because he’s this fine figure of a masculine specimen.
Yet that is supposed to be the point. Able is put in a position to fulfil all his fantasies, yet is out of his depth all the time. But, to tell the truth, Sir Able of the High Heart is too much the superhuman for me. Perhaps that is only Wolfe being true to Dunsany, but it renders him unreal, and far too simple a character to sustain him at the centre of a more than four hundred page narration that ends with the slaying of a dragon.
The second book of this extended tale is even longer.


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